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A Proper Job

Proper Games' CEO Paddy Sinclair on developing for XBLA, and the advantages of small companies

Continuing the look at Dundee-based studios as part of Scotland Week, next up is Proper Games, founded in 2006 by former Visual Science staffers.

Here CEO Paddy Sinclair explains how the company is achieving what it set out to do, and offers some details on the newly-announced XBLA title Flock! So where did Proper Games come from?
Paddy Sinclair

Well, we're going back to the start of 2006 - myself and a few others at the company were employed at Visual Science. We'd been pursuing an idea with CEO Tim Christian of an internal business unit devoted to downloadable games, particularly for Xbox Live Arcade.

We were setting the wheels in motion in terms of getting the funding together when Visual Science went into administration, and at that point we got slightly less conservative about the staff we approached for starting up Proper Games.

We'd had the benefit of some independent investment from day one, so we could take a little bit of time to get up and running. Initially there were seven of us, and we've now grown to twelve full time employees and two contractors. Plus at the moment we have two student placements. So that's over the course of nearly two and half years.

It's been a bit of a struggle getting to this point - the first thoughts about rushing in, making a downloadable game in three months, pretty immediate income... it doesn't work like that... What sort of lessons have you learned over that time?
Paddy Sinclair

Probably the biggest lesson is that everything takes longer than you think. Xbox Live Arcade for instance - the process will take about 3-4 months, from submitting a proposal to Microsoft, to coming out the other end.

It's easier if you go in with a publisher - they can handle all that stuff, and that then makes a triple platform release a lot easier. We got engaged fairly early on with PlayStation Network and did some exploratory work there, so we're quite convinced that we want to present the games on as many platforms as possible, and also be different - there's an awful lot of the same stuff coming through, even the stuff we thought was a little bit different to begin realise that you're maybe not as original as you thought you'd be.

It'll go all the way through the submission process, then you find out there's a game like this coming out...and maybe you look a little better, but it's a crowded space. So you really need to have a publisher behind you to make more of an impact.

If what's differentiating you from other products is mostly the quality difference...if on the other hand it's an original concept, it's maybe not such an issue. We've been fortunate enough to secure a deal with Capcom to make a game called Flock!

For want of a better description, it's a sheep-herding alien puzzle game. We're aiming for a triple platform release in the run-up to Christmas, although it might stray into the New Year, depending on Microsoft. The game has a unique visual style - in fact everything is a stuffed toy, including the landscape.

We like to think we are quite different from LittleBigPlanet - which is ultra-realistic cloth - because we're not at all realistic cloth. The animals you're herding - the cows, the sheep and so on, are fluffy toys. The sheep literally are cotton wool, we haven't got a physical model for them, they're just a mass of particles that move around. The UFO is made from stitched cloth, more towards the vinyl or leather end though.

But the key thing to the game though is fun - it's fun to do badly. And if you're losing, your animals start falling off the cliffs, you get amusing and varied deaths... The animals also react in humorous ways to various obstacles, scarecrows and crop circles, things like that. It's interesting to watch the online services develop, particularly now all three next-gen platforms have them. What's your view on that evolution?
Paddy Sinclair

It's definitely a rich opportunity, because it's almost back to the early days, in the eighties, where you could get one guy making a game in his bedroom, or whatever. Okay, it's a little bit more than that, but you're getting the same kind of vibe, so there's the option for smaller developers to make their mark.

The sales on XBLA have been not with the guys you'd expect - it's not been the likes of EA or Ubisoft - it's people like PopCap who have moved in. Which is interesting, because they're the specialists in the casual space.
Paddy Sinclair

Yes - and also you've seen a lot of the developers themselves directly establishing stuff, so the Team 17s - with Worms on XBLA, you know it's Team 17, there's no publisher there. So you're almost back to buying a game because of the developer, not because of the publisher.

So there's plenty of opportunity, and certainly publishers have seen that getting on board with developers and pushing them forward will draw people to the games. So hopefully we'll see Proper Games on a game, in an initial instance from Capcom - maybe from others in the future - and they'll recognise that brand and pick it out. Developers don't get a huge amount of recognition in the mainstream, for the most part.
Paddy Sinclair

No, and certainly going back to our Visual Science days - it was well known in the development community, but maybe not so well known to the end user. We had a fairly prominent billing on the games we did work on for EA. What's your view of the way that Microsoft is developing the XBLA space, with ratings, etc?
Paddy Sinclair

Well, it's with mixed emotions really. At the moment there is a little bit too much junk on there - that's not to denigrate the guys who have stuff there, but a way to tier and rate content would be nice.

Obviously as we're coming to Xbox Live for the first time, it would be nice to be prominent, and we could just get lost in the morass of arcade conversions... So to a certain extent I'm behind the concept of delisting games that aren't selling, aren't well-received, but I think it's a combination of the two.

But it's also the bread-and-butter for those companies - it may not be huge sales, but that thousand or so per month they are selling is a trickle of income, and it's just going to get sliced off...

Flat-out delisting perhaps isn't the solution - it's a step in the right direction - but hopefully they'll come back and have a facility whereby if it's been on Xbox Live Arcade, you can always pick it up from somewhere.

That's what I'd like to see, but I'd also like to see a way of properly categorising games - what's the most-downloaded game at the moment? What's been most bought? You mentioned the student placements - how important is the student pipeline to Dundee?
Paddy Sinclair

Certainly having Abertay on tap is really quite good - getting quite a lot of graduates with some games industry experience to varying degrees. There's also the huge motivating factor of the Dare to be Digital competition, which just to get in to compete is a hard battle. It's a ten-week schedule, which most developers would look at and think twice about. But as the winners from last year demonstrated, you clearly can produce some good results, and we're certainly looking into ways to keep working with the teams.

Hopefully there's something that's possible to commercialise, some way to bring them on - either to act as a mentor for them, or a publisher in effect. It teaches the great lesson of getting something finished...?
Paddy Sinclair

Absolutely, nothing can prepare you for crunch...but luckily - touch wood - we have a culture of no crunch. I mean, you can't say absolutely no crunch, but you can minimise it. That seems to be the way that the smaller companies are differentiating themselves - the culture?
Paddy Sinclair

Yes, and that's been a big motivating factor for us - having an environment where people are happy to come into work. It's not like it's five days to the milestone, they know they'll be in until 10pm or whatever. We don't want that attitude - we want you to work to live, not live to work. And you've benefitted from Scottish Enterprise?
Paddy Sinclair

Yes, quite a lot actually. They helped with the initial start-up of the company, we had advice through the Games Advisory Panel, and the breadth of knowledge was amazing. I've not come from a managerial background myself - I kind of come with the money - so it was a bit of Hobson's Choice regarding CEO... so it was really making the best of things. What does the future hold for you?
Paddy Sinclair

At the moment we're just running a single project, and we're looking to run two, maybe three projects, but not to get larger than around 25 people in the company. It's the cultural shift - you're no longer a small company once you get past 30. We always want to be in the situation where everyone knows everyone, there are no huge surprises.

Paddy Sinclair is the CEO of Proper Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.

This article is part of Scotland Week on, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.

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